WASHINGTON - This week the Trump administration announced $122 million in new programs and partnerships under the Women's Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative, and the release of 10 interagency W-GDP legal reform action plans to address the legal and cultural barriers to women's economic participation throughout the world.
W-GDP is billed as a "whole of government approach" seeking to reach 50 million women across the developing world by 2025, with a three-pillar goal - providing vocational training for women; empowering women to succeed as entrepreneurs; and eliminating legal and policy barriers preventing women's economic participation.
Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien and Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun delivered the announcement with virtual appearances by private sector partners including Walmart, Microsoft and Mastercard.
"This is the type of bold action to expand the efforts of the federal government, the private sector and other partners that restrict women's ability to participate in the local economies that has been the American model for success," Trump said.
The initiative comes in the face of fresh challenges as COVID-19 exacerbates existing gender inequalities around the world. Reports from numerous countries have shown that women are disproportionately and uniquely impacted by the coronavirus across every sphere, from health and the economy to security and social protection.
According to U.N. data, 60 percent of women's employment is in the informal economy with limited protection. This means women are often overlooked by bailout programs seeking to reinvigorate the economy while being particularly vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity, according to Megan O'Donnell, assistant director of the Center for Global Development's gender program. "We've seen evidence that women's businesses are more likely to close compared with men's."
And with children out of school, women are picking up even more caregiving responsibilities, forcing many to step back from the workplace and exacerbating the economic consequences of the unpaid care work that women disproportionately perform. Moreover, women face an increase in domestic violence as a result of lockdowns, and find less access to sexual and reproductive health as limited resources are diverted to the pandemic.
Women also make up 70 percent of healthcare workers worldwide risking their lives to save others, according to the World Health Organization.
"Advancing women's economic participation in the midst of the COVID crisis will require attention to these issues - something the W-GDP initiative should take into account to deliver on its promise," said Jamille Bigio, senior fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Women as economic drivers
W-GDP believes that women should not be viewed as victims who are waiting for somebody to come and save them, but should be seen as the drivers of economic recovery from the pandemic, said Kelley Currie, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.
"We are focused on how the barriers to women's participation can be removed so that women can be full participants in the economy and how they can drive prosperity and growth," said Currie.
Still some observers question whether the initiative's limited scope and relatively small budget of $100 million under the W-GDP Fund will be enough to meet the challenge.
Though W-GDP has grown steadily from its initial $50 million allocation, it's nowhere near the tens of billions invested in PEPFAR for example, said Megan O'Donnell, referring to the initiative to address the global HIV/AIDS epidemic launched by President George W. Bush in 2003.
"To match the scale of the problem, W-GDP will need to be able to support at-scale solutions," O'Donnell said, adding that the likelihood of success will increase if those implementing the initiative have increased financial resources at their disposal.
W-GDP has been lauded for ensuring that a range of U.S. government agencies including USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Development Finance Corporation, Peace Corps and others feed into its three-pillar strategy and report their progress according to a standard set of metrics. But its biggest criticism remains that the initiative, in line with broader Trump administration policies, ignores investments that support women's health, sexual and reproductive rights, and mitigate gender-based violence.
In his first week in office, President Donald Trump reinstated and expanded the Global Gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, that prohibits U.S. global health assistance organizations from providing information, resources, or services on safe abortions.
In 2018, the State Department removed reproductive health from its annual country reports, and in May 2020, USAID acting administrator John Barsa sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General demanding that sexual and reproductive healthcare be removed from the U.N.'s COVID-19 response plan.
"All the collaboration in the world cannot erase the fact that the overall women's rights legacy of the Trump administration is one that is anti-women and anti-rights," said Amanda Klasing, acting co-director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "If the Trump administration keeps actively attacking sexual and reproductive rights at every opportunity and failing to address gender-based violence, the W-GDP successes are just on paper."
Responding to VOA's question, Kelley Currie, the State Department's ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, defended the initiative.
W-GDP is "very focused" and "very consensus-based," Currie said. "We believe that this is the best way that we can use the resources we have to address the barriers that are holding back women."